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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

About once a year we chronicle the head-spinning health news that we experience on a nearly daily basis.

For example: Drinking alcoholic beverages can cause all sorts of health problems, but drinking red wine every day appears to lower the risk of cancer. Or, how about the news this week that those of us using sugar substitutes are likely to gain more weight than those who use real sugar?

Remember that eggs are bad for you, then eggs are good for you debate? How about coffee, once held as a pariah, then given credit for doing some good?

Don't even get us started on butter and margarine...

Last week, there was widespread reporting on a Dutch study that questioned the long-held view that staying fit and healthy into old age saves countless health care dollars.

Makes sense, right? Healthy people should require less medical care, fewer prescriptions, fewer major surgeries.

Wrong, says the Dutch study. Not wrong that healthy seniors require less care. Wrong that the care they receive is less expensive than caring for obese people who rarely exercise. The longer you live, the more your health care costs, said the study, while fat, unfit people don't need all that costly care.

Because they're dead.

The researchers found that from age 20 to 56, obese people racked up the most expensive health costs. But because both the smokers and the obese people died sooner than the healthy group, it cost less to treat them in the long run.

According to the study, healthy people live, on average, to age 84. Smokers live to about 77, and obese people live to about 80. And here's a corker: The study says the incidence of cancer is about the same in all three groups. Obese people had the most diabetes, and healthy people had the most strokes. Ultimately, the thin and healthy group cost the most, about $417,000, from age 20 on.

So, should we all start smoking, drinking and eating all those foods that are supposed to be bad for us?

The answer, it would seem, depends a lot on whether you're 77 or 84.